Is Your Protein Powder Out to Get You?

Many people use protein powder to supplement their diet and achieve their desired weight or nutrition. Bodybuilders, vegetarians, vegans, and anyone else who purchases protein powder might wonder what ingredients — what unsaid ingredients — are in their powders. After all, a white powder with the consistency of flour might not give clues as to what exactly is in it, just like an over-processed chicken nugget that won’t rot for 5 years. It turns out that nanotechnology, trace amounts of pesticides, and heavy metals are key players in contamination, and might make you think twice about the brands you purchase.

Now I know what you might be thinking — “isn’t nanotechnology just fancy micro-robots of the future?”. Well, not exactly. Nanotech or nanoparticles in food really just indicates the microscopic size of the food particles and their ability to aid in food delivery, flavor, and prolonged shelf life (Cuffari, 2015). Because the particles range from 1 to 100 nanometers in size, they are able to easily move through the gastrointestinal tract and deliver nutrients to the body, which stay there far longer than typical bulk materials that are used in food ingredients (Cuffari, 2015). However, with these nanoparticles comes nanotoxicity in the form of pollution and pesticides, all on a microscopic level. Silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles are commonly added to protein powders for flow properties and increased lightness in the coloring (Lim et al., 2015). High levels of SiO2 or TiO2 particles may create health risks associated with cellular damage, liver disfunction, and a lowered immune response (McClements & Xiao, 2017). Unfortunately, there is no effective regulation over contamination so I would recommend a personal investigation of your current brand of protein powder to see if clean ingredients are a main priority — your liver will thank you for it.

Even if you decide to play the role of detective in order to ensure that your powder is innocent of pollutants, the small particle size of any protein powder may negatively interact with your gut microbiota. This certainly comes as a punch to the gut, as it may not even matter if you buy organic due to the way your gut bacteria alters the properties of ingested nanoparticles in the powder, and vice versa. Your gut microbiota plays an important role in many metabolic processes and diseases, such as cardiovascular health, diabetes, fatty liver disease, obesity, and accompanying co-morbidities (Cepeda et al., 2018). Inorganic nanoparticles have been known to alter bacterial viability in the colon and damage cell walls, along with creating an imbalance of bacterial species (McClements & Xiao, 2017). Organic (not the kind that you buy at the grocery store) nanoparticles also have the ability to enhance the bioavailability of pesticides or hormones after ingested (McClements & Xiao, 2017). Unfortunately, all these side effect warnings are starting to sound like a pharmaceutical ad, but until there is more regulation in the States on nanoparticles in food it is important be made aware of adverse health effects.

Although the first physical barrier against toxic materials in the human body is the gastrointestinal tract with gut microbiota, mucus is usually not recognized as an important factor in its interaction with pollutants and food contamination (Gillois et al., 2018). It is crucial to gut homeostasis as it interplays with nanoparticles, heavy metals, and pesticides (Gillois et al., 2018). This means that although we typically look at gut microbiota to determine levels of environmental pollution and risk factors, intestinal mucus must be researched as well in order to get the whole picture. Together, examinations of gut microbiota and mucus will help give researchers a toxicity evaluation of environmental pollution (Jin et al., 2017). We can then use these evaluations to set safe food standards in the U.S.

Whey is the most common type of protein powder supplement, which is made from cow’s milk. Vegans will be happy to know that toxicity in the body may result as a consequence of ingesting this type of animal protein. They will not be happy to know that researches had to conduct tests on rats to show that there is an increased risk for cardiac injury, oxidative stress, and damage to red blood cells (just to name a few) when taking whey supplements (Sekeroglu, 2018). According to this research, you might want to think about purchasing a vegan or plant-based powder like soy or pea protein, as it should not create the beforementioned symptoms (vegans: 1, omnivores: 0). However, additional research is necessary before concluding that whey protein powders will give you a heart attack — so don’t fear non-vegan options just yet.

Chromium and cadmium are used as industrial chemicals that are found in many household products and some foods at certain allowable levels. Personally, I’m not sure if any amount of heavy metals should be allowed — but you can thank unregulated businesses and politicians for that. Unfortunately Big Brother has decided it would be wise not to enforce the limits to toxicity either, as many tested food samples have exceeded the legal limits of chromium, cadmium, and other trace amounts of heavy metals (Korfali et al., 2013). Too much of these dangerous elements can lead to altered gene expression, DNA damage, membrane damage, tissue damage, and more (Stohs et al, 2000).

It is important to remember that one spoonful of your protein powder isn’t going to make you double over from cardiac arrest or permanently altered gut microbiota. However, small chronic doses of toxic pollutants can create health problems over time — especially if you choose to ignore the ingredient list and company’s mission statement. For example, some companies swear off of antibiotics, chemicals, and contaminants while others list ingredients you can’t even pronounce. Furthermore, although health-oriented stores market safe and “all-natural” protein powders, the prevalence of nanoparticles in supplements in recent years may result in unsafe levels of toxicity in many products, organic or not. That’s not to say that all brands are dangerous either, but it is important to be aware of all possible adverse health effects in order to make informed decisions on what you decide to put in your stomach.


Cuffari, J. L. F. (2015, June 29). Nanotechnology in Food. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from

Gillois, K., Lévêque, M., Théodorou, V., Robert, H., & Mercier-Bonin, M. (2018). Mucus: An Underestimated Gut Target for Environmental Pollutants and Food Additives. Microorganisms, 6(2).

Lim, J.-H., Sisco, P., Mudalige, T. K., Sánchez-Pomales, G., Howard, P. C., & Linder, S. W. (2015). Detection and Characterization of SiO2 and TiO2 Nanostructures in Dietary Supplements. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 63(12), 3144–3152.

Aydin, B., Atli Sekeroglu, Z., & Sekeroglu, V. (2018). Effects of whey protein and conjugated linoleic acid on acrolein-induced cardiac oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction and dyslipidemia in rats. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy = Biomedecine & Pharmacotherapie, 107, 901–907.

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McClements, D. J., & Xiao, H. (2017). Is nano safe in foods? Establishing the factors impacting the gastrointestinal fate and toxicity of organic and inorganic food-grade nanoparticles. Npj Science of Food, 1(1), 6.

Stohs, S. J., Bagchi, D., Hassoun, E., & Bagchi, M. (2000). Oxidative mechanisms in the toxicity of chromium and cadmium ions. Journal of Environmental Pathology, Toxicology and Oncology : Official Organ of the International Society for Environmental Toxicology and Cancer, 19(3), 201–213.

Korfali, S. I., Hawi, T., & Mroueh, M. (2013). Evaluation of heavy metals content in dietary supplements in Lebanon. Chemistry Central Journal, 7, 10.

Jin, Y., Wu, S., Zeng, Z., & Fu, Z. (2017). Effects of environmental pollutants on gut microbiota. Environmental Pollution (Barking, Essex: 1987), 222, 1–9.

Roca-Saavedra, P., Mendez-Vilabrille, V., Miranda, J. M., Nebot, C., Cardelle-Cobas, A., Franco, C. M., & Cepeda, A. (2018). Food additives, contaminants and other minor components: effects on human gut microbiota-a review. Journal Of Physiology And Biochemistry, 74(1), 69–83.